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It’s clear from a mile away that American Rust, created by Dan Futterman (The Looming Tower), is meant to be capital-I Important. For starters, there’s the literary pedigree — the Showtime drama is based on Philipp Meyer’s critically acclaimed 2009 novel. And then there’s the respectable cast, which includes Jeff Daniels, Maura Tierney and Bill Camp sinking into the kinds of heavy, unglamorous roles that win plaudits.
The plot revolves around an apparent homicide in the depressed Pennsylvania town of Buell (shades of the extremely Emmy-nominated Mare of Easttown) and touches upon a litany of relevant social and political issues including, but not limited to, the failing economy, the opioid epidemic and the lack of labor protections. These narratives unfold in exquisitely detailed sets, on which every paint job is chipped and peeled to perfection, and are captured in shades of rust brown and gunmetal gray against a perpetually cloudy sky.
Airdate: Sunday, Sept. 12
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Maura Tierney, Bill Camp, David Alvarez, Alex Neustaedter, Julia Mayorga, Mark Pellegrino, Rob Yang
Developed by: Dan Futterman, from the book by Philipp Meyer
Executive producers: Dan Futterman, Jeff Daniels, Michael De Luca, Adam Rapp, Paul Martino, Katie O'Connell Marsh, Elsa Ellis
But all these prestige trappings can’t save American Rust from its fundamental, fatal flaw: It’s hopelessly boring. The series opens on a man crushing up a tablet and painstakingly measuring out a dosage, and it somehow only gets slower from there. What could have been a propulsive murder mystery or a cogent conversation about social issues ends up a snail crawl through a generic town populated by characters whose personalities range from glum to glummer.
It’s not that the actors don’t try. Daniels does sturdy work as Del Harris, the local police chief whose conflicting loyalties — the deceased person at the center of the case was once a cop — make him either the best or worst person to find out what really happened. He’s the ideal actor to deliver a tragic backstory monologue, keeping his face and voice steady in a way that makes the words tumbling out of his mouth even more heartbreaking — which is perhaps why, in two of the three episodes given to critics for review, he gets two such speeches. He’s at his most appealing in scenes with Del’s sometimes girlfriend, a seamstress named Grace played by Tierney with low-key sweetness and an appropriate level of world-weary resignation.
Camp rounds out the older half of the cast as a cantankerous local widower named Henry, and though he disappears into the role with his usual finesse, so far his character’s main utility is as an albatross for his adult kids — Lee (Julia Mayorga), the rare Buell success story who made it out and married rich, to the intermittent resentment of the community she left behind; and Isaac (David Alvarez), a shy gay teen who’s been caring for his dad but dreams of following his sister’s example by leaving Buell for good. Grace’s son, Billy, played by Taylor Kitsch type Alex Neustaedter, completes the main cast as a Tim Riggins type whose talent at football hasn’t managed to save him yet.
The younger actors struggle to rise above dialogue that seems to mistake deliberation for depth and observation for insight. In the first episode, Isaac prompts Billy to recount the history of their friendship back to him (not one of the more graceful exposition dumps ever seen on TV), and they chat in circles kicking up lots of information but little enlightenment as to what their usual dynamic is like. Not that dialing down the dialogue helps much. Isaac spends long stretches of American Rust hopping trains and skulking around the woods, having skipped town after that mysterious death, and it’s unclear what we’re supposed to glean from these scenes beyond that, yup, Isaac still exists.
That all of this is happening because a dude died under mysterious circumstances ought to inject some sense of urgency into American Rust, but the show itself only occasionally seems to remember that it’s here to look into a possible murder. (For his part, Del is positive he knows who did it, and most of the other characters don’t seem all that curious.) Episode two, for instance, takes place almost entirely at a wedding for two minor characters, and spends more time taking note of which extras have danced with the bride or contributed to the money tree than it does advancing either the murder investigation or the cover-up.
Ostensibly, scenes like the wedding offer us the opportunity to get to know the town and the people in it. But American Rust‘s portrayal of Buell feels bloodless — precise in such superficial details as the types of sparkling wine a local bar might or might not carry, but lacking in the idiosyncrasies that might give the viewer any sense of what it’d be like to pull up a chair there at the end of a long shift. If you’ve seen one generically downbeat Rust Belt town onscreen (like, say, in 2020’s Hillbilly Elegy, with which American Rust shares at least a couple of plot points), you’ve seen Buell.
It’s a town that is relentless and uniform in its dreariness, with few flashes of the joy or humor or passion that humans tend to find even in the bleakest of situations — and that might have helped American Rust feel like a show about actual characters and not just prestige-drama paper dolls. Which, in turn, makes the show’s stabs at tackling the opioid crisis or the housing crisis, or its even more timid pokes at racism and homophobia, feel shallow: What could American Rust possibly have to say about a place it hardly seems to understand?
In fairness, the answer may very well turn out to be “quite a bit,” and it’s even possible some of it will be original or profound. With only three episodes screened for review, and another six to go in the season, there’s plenty of time for the show to pick up, if not enough to transform into another show entirely. But it’s hard to see much incentive in sticking around long enough to find out. American Rust‘s characters may be troubled, as they’re constantly explaining to each other, but collectively they’re right about one thing: This place is a dead end, and maybe the best thing to do is get the hell out.
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